As people continue to grapple with COVID-19 and its variants, evidence is growing that a wide variety of animals are susceptible to the novel coronavirus, too.

Cats, dogs and hamsters — some of the most popular house pets — can get COVID-19. So can lions, hippos, hyenas, tigers, mink, opossum, squirrels, and mice, among others, according to a list in The Atlantic.

Edward Holmes, a University of Sydney biologist, told Atlantic writer Yasmin Tayag, “In all my 30-plus years of doing work on this subject, I have never seen a virus that can infect so many animal species.” He said more than 500 other mammal species are believed to be “highly susceptible to infection,” the article said.

National Geographic reported this week that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had expanded its list to include “captive tigers, lions, gorillas, snow leopards, otters and spotted hyenas.” 

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“Zoo staff in the U.S. have recorded a single positive case in a binturong, coati, cougar, domestic ferret, fishing cat, lynx, mandrill, and squirrel monkey,” the article said, adding that in the U.S. among animals in the wild, just mink, mule deer and white-tailed deer have tested positive for COVID-19. “Cases have been detected elsewhere in the world in wild black-tailed marmosetsbig hairy armadillos, and a leopard.”

Transmissible between species?

Besides the risk of exposure, spread among species also increases the risk of more variants emerging.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasizes that while pets, including cats and dogs, have been infected with the virus, “mostly after close contact with people with COVID-19,” there’s actually very little risk that the pet will spread COVID-19 to people.

A December 2022 study in Veterinary Medicine and Science reported COVID infection in household cats who were in close contact with their COVID-positive owners when delta and omicron variants were circulating, suggesting the cats got the illness from their owners and that people who are infected should “eagerly limit close contact with their pets during COVID-19 illness.”

An Oxford University report published by SciTechDaily, however, reported that “having cats or dogs as pets did not affect the risk of infection and had a mostly insignificant positive effect on the risk of someone experiencing a severe course of the disease.”

Hong Kong last year had a rash of COVID-19 infections at a pet shop, prompting the government there to ban the import of hamsters. That ban was just lifted, according to the BBC. Instead, officials there will test hamsters before they can be sold, since “studies had found the animals could contract the virus and pass it on to humans,” the article said. But it, too, noted that “there is no clear evidence that pets can easily pass the infection to humans.”

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A study in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases looked at COVID-19 transmission between pets and humans in Washington and Idaho.

The study found that as of Oct. 17, in the United States, a total of 110 domestic cats and 95 domestic dogs had been reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to have SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, per Infection Control Today.

Do’s and don’ts

Folks who worry their pet will become ill with COVID-19 can take some steps to prevent it. But there are also certain things that should never be done. CDC says:

  • Don’t put a mask on your pet, because that could hurt the animal.
  • Never wipe your pet down with disinfectants, alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, hand sanitizer, etc., because that could harm Fido or Kitty, too. And “there is no evidence that the virus can spread to people from the skin, fur or hair of pets,” per CDC.
  • If you have COVID-19, treat your pet like you treat the people in your life — avoid contact.

COVID symptoms in pets

The CDC said most pets won’t have symptoms — and of those infected, “most only had mild illness and fully recovered. Serious illness in pets is extremely rare.”

While unusual, some symptoms a pet might exhibit are very similar to those of a human with COVID-19, including fever, coughing, shortness of breath, lack of energy, sneezing, runny nose and vomiting or diarrhea. The health agency recommends telehealth for your pet if the service is available, since owners who have COVID-19 themselves should not personally take pets to the vet.